Back From The Dead
Left decaying, empty, and almost forgotten, a decade of painstaking renovations means the Caribou Hotel is set to once more become the beating heart of Carcross.
There is a white clawfoot bathtub resting in the centre of the what will, eventually, be the dining room of the restored Caribou Hotel.
Sitting upright and slightly askew, the bathtub, new and very clean, seems curiously out of place, as if someone had left it there—quite by accident, as easily as a misplaced hat—amid the restless sea of paintbrushes, plaster scrapers, scrap wood, drop cloths, tools, tins of woodstain and the other, miscellaneous flotsam of repair.
The historic Caribou Hotel is in the midst of a makeover.
In the summertime, the village of Carcross has all the hum and buzz of a quaint tourist town. Sightseers unload from buses sent from Skagway, Alaska, to explore the Canadian inland while local Yukoners head up the mountain to tear down on mountain bikes, or fish for grayling off the railway bridge. Come winter, the village acquires the wan attitude of a hostess who, the party over and the guests all gone home, has retired to her own room with several generous fingers of scotch.
In keeping with this secretive and familial air, the Caribou Hotel stands nestled on the left side of a split street corner, looking contemplatively at the nearby White Pass and Yukon Route bridge. The hotel has been closed, empty and unused, since 2005, following the murder of its previous owner. Bob Olson was killed shortly before Christmas Day 2004, rolled by two drunk men who attacked him in the hotel barroom.
Although it was never a large community, Carcross was “sort of the centre point of transportation in the Yukon for probably the first 50 years or so until the highway was built,” says Yukon writer John Firth, author of a new book, The Caribou Hotel: Hauntings, Hospitality, and Hunter and the Parrot.
Well known for his heavily-researched, highly-readable books on Yukon history, Firth says both Carcross—and, by extension, the hotel—were integral to the development and culture of the territory. “Everything spins out of (Carcross), so you can see just how important the community was,” says Firth. “And the heart of every small community is the hotel.”
Which is precisely why history-enthusiast Anne Morgan and her partner Jamie Toole bought the Caribou in 2006 and decided to bring it back to life.
“I’ve always had a keen interest in history and I’ve always wanted to run a bed and breakfast,” she says. “It’s been so important to us, the hotel, saving history—so much of it gets torn (down).”
The Caribou Hotel isn’t just any old money pit. It’s a designated Yukon Historic Site and one of the oldest buildings in the Yukon's Southern Lakes region. Its history and position in Carcross make the hotel not only culturally important to the village, but a potentially attractive investment as tourism in the territory has seen a significant growth over the past several years.
Morgan and Toole began renovations in 2007, but repairing the hotel was somewhat more complicated—and costly—than anticipated. The Caribou, already an aged structure, had stood empty and uncared for in the years following Olson’s death.
“When we first purchased it, I remember standing behind the hotel looking at the siding… and it just has this big scoop in the back,” Morgan recalls. “Normally, it should be somewhat level… but it kind of had a big bulge in the middle where the foundation had kind of come up underneath in the middle.”
The bar’s back wall and floors were likewise in bad shape. The Caribou’s balcony had been rotten as far back as the 1970s, says Morgan. “You could have fallen right through, even then.”
When they bought it, the building still smelled like a bar the day after a party—all smoke and spilt beer. “It was quite prevalent.”
Worse, years and years of successive owners had altered the Caribou to meet changing building codes: tearing out some things, covering over others and basically jerry-rigging the hotel into compliance. The result was a historical hodgepodge of renovations. How were they to choose what was ‘original?’ What was even the ‘real’ hotel?
Carcross was not the original site of the Caribou. It was first built and operated in 1898, says Firth, as the Yukon Hotel in Bennett, British Columbia. During the Klondike Gold Rush, Bennett was an important supply and staging ground for fortune-seekers on their way to Dawson City. But when the White Pass Railroad was completed in 1900, the town was rendered redundant and the economy collapsed. Bennett was abandoned and the hotel was dismantled, then floated down the river to Carcross, where it was renamed the Anderson.
The property was then purchased in 1903 by Gold-Rush legend Dawson Charlie, a member of the Carcross/Tagish First Nation (C/TFN), on whose traditional territory the town of Carcross resides. He renamed it the Caribou Hotel.
“He would have had his family there with him,” Morgan says. “They would have eaten in the kitchen and drank coffee and played cards together. I think it’s nice to think about.”
Dawson Charlie held onto the hotel until his death in 1908, when he fell from the nearby railway bridge. Edwin and Bessie Gideon took over the business, but the original structure soon
after burned down in 1910.
It was to this 1910 vision of the hotel that Morgan and Toole decided to be true, and they set about giving the hotel a “factory reset” to that period. It was very important to them both that the Caribou not simply be repaired but restored.
Fortunately, Toole is a contractor, and had the skills and know-how to “set the hotel back in time.” Instead of doing the much faster (and cheaper) work of simply ripping apart broken things and replacing them with new ones, the couple chose to keep as much of the original material as possible.
“It was interesting to see Jamie work because, as we sort of peeled back the layers, he could tell there would be places where a doorway had been moved, and I would be like, ‘Well, I want the doorway back where it was,’” says Morgan.
The first step was to reset the degraded foundation—what there was of it anyway. Firth’s book notes there may never have been any foundation for the Caribou. The building may just have been sitting wholesale on the sand of Carcross. The whole building was lifted three feet into the air on posts—not unlike jacking up a camper to slip on the back of a truck—and the walls reinforced so they didn’t fall-in on themselves. The work crew then built a new foundation underneath and—very, very carefully—winched the whole thing back down on top of it so that the Caribou was level with the road (which had risen over the years).
“I didn’t want to watch,” Morgan chuckles, covering her eyes with her hands. “I was sure it was going to implode.”
But even with this herculean task completed, the work was far from over. All the rotten window frames were removed, repaired and replaced. The glass was replaced with double panes to make the building more energy efficient. Most wooden surfaces in the hotel had “like, seven layers” of paint on them, says Morgan, and so all the doors, door frames and wainscotting were removed, put through a stripping process, restained, revarnished, and put back.
Where things were unusable or missing, the couple sent down samples to Vintage Woodworks in Victoria, who custom-milled reproductions for them. All the siding came off and what was still good was used on the front and side of the hotel. Vintage Woodworks cut the rest.
The painstaking work didn’t go unnoticed, it seems, by the hotel’s alleged ghosts. Morgan claims some rather spooky things happened during the renovations and reopening. One worker abruptly stopped what he was doing, put down his tool belt and announced he was quitting. He said he saw someone—not anyone he knew or who should have been on the premises—walk beneath a hole in the floor he was repairing, pause, and look directly up at him. When people went downstairs to look for the culprit, there was no one there.
“Even now, when I talk to him about it, he’s still kind of freaked out,” Morgan says. “He definitely had some kind of experience.”
With such a lengthy—and salacious—history, it should come as no surprise that the hotel is said to be haunted. Firth collected many of those ghost stories in his recent book. In 2015, a “Haunted Canada” postage stamp featured the hotel, with a portrait of one-time owner Mrs. Gideon, suspected by many to be the main culprit of the hauntings.
“I think Mrs. Gideon is there for sure,” says Morgan. “I think she may be unsettled or just really loves the hotel, and she’s still looking after guests. People talk about her coming into their rooms, not being malicious or anything but just checking on them. They see her sometimes in the window on the third floor and sometimes there’s knocking. I think that’s her waking people up for breakfast.”
After 13 years of hard work, Morgan and Toole finally reopened part of the Caribou Hotel’s bar on August 17 of last year, just in time for Discovery Day. The Surly Bird bar gets its name from the old hotel’s notoriously foul-mouthed, cantankerous, finger-nipping Polly. Amazon green parrot Polly’s original owners left the bird in the care of the Gideons for the winter of 1918, only to die that year in the infamous sinking of the S.S. Princess Sophia. The parrot became the hotel’s longest resident, outliving multiple owners until Polly's death in 1972.
The Caribou Hotel is now closed for the winter, but Morgan says they will reopen the bar portion come spring. The restaurant is still under construction, but the couple hopes—optimistically—to have those renovations finished in 2020 (and hopefully the bathtub relocated). Work on the guest rooms will take another year, with Morgan estimating—again, hopefully—that the Caribou will once more begin accepting guests by the end of 2021.
It’s over a decade off from their original timeline. Initially, the couple had thought to have the hotel open by 2010. But there’s a saying in the service industry—you can have it cheap, fast or right, but you can only pick two. In this case, Morgan and Toole have opted for only one; right.
“We’re right behind schedule.”